Artwork by STEVEN FICHE
BY JONATHAN VALANIA More legend than band, the Flamin’ Groovies are the greatest rock n’ roll group you never heard of. It’s tempting to call them the Velvet Underground of power-pop, in that they are/were great and largely unheralded and do play what could be described as power-pop. They have also, in the course of a career spanning 1966 to, like, now, essayed any number of seminal forms: Pub rock, rockabilly, power pop, protopunk, blues rock. All styles that still give droopy graybeard rock snobs chubbies, which are increasingly harder to come by in this crazy, mixed up hippity hoppity dancey-pants age of Justin/Miley/Nikki/Arianna. Though they have released eight albums and innumerable EPs and singles between 1969 and 1993, it is primarily two songs that have writ them immortal in the pantheon of rock snobbery: a galloping, great Caesar’s ghost of bluesy garage-punk snarl and Led Zep burlesque called “Teenage Head,” and a shimmering slice of power-pop nirvana called “Shake Some Action.” These songs are eternal.
Which is why I jumped at the chance to get Groovies singer/guitarist/songwriter and all around Moe-haired mainman Cyril Jordan on the phone. I was told by his publicist that it would not be easy. Jordan has zero interest in the modern miracles of post-millennial communication. He still gets wired the old fashioned way. He doesn’t have a cell phone or even an answering machine which even Bill ‘Shitlord Of The Luddites’ Murray utilizes in the maintenance of his analog I-don’t-give-a-fuck career. But getting Jordan on the phone turned out to be no big whoop and not only was he a pussycat — unlike, say, Johnny fuckin’ Rotten — but he’s got AMAZING stories — turns out he’s the frickin’ Zelig of ’60s/70’s rock and/or roll.
In part one of this massive, 8,883-word Q&A we DISCUSSED: LSD; the Grateful Dead; Artie Shaw; The Black Panthers; how his father lost his billion dollar tapioca plantation fortune in the Dutch East Indies when they Japanese invaded in 1942 and pulverized him with their gun butts, throwing him in a POW camp and starving and torturing him to the verge of suicide; Jefferson Airplane; Bill Graham; running The Fillmore; the wrath of Imelda Marcos; Dylan comes alive at Newport ’65; seeing The Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park tripping his face off; Kim Fowley’s lysergic libido; rolling 10 joints and taking Led Zeppelin to Knott’s Berry Farm; doing blow with Ike Turner, plus a few other things. Oh yes, also, did I mention that The Flamin’ Groovies are playing Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday August 24th? No? Well, they are. Enjoy.
PHAWKER: First of all, you have one of the coolest names in show business, Cyril Jordan. That just sounds like the ultimate soul-singer or jazz master name.
CYRIL JORDAN: [laughs] I’ve never gotten that one before.
PHAWKER: Oh no? And Cyril Jordan is your real name? Not a-
CYRIL JORDAN: No, that’s my real name.
PHAWKER: That’s awesome. So you came of age in the mid-60’s in San Francisco at the height of psychedelia, did you grow up there or did was just ‘right place right time’?
CYRIL JORDAN: I grew up here. I was, I guess that you could call me an anchor baby.
PHAWKER: From what country?
CYRIL JORDAN: Well my folks were Dutch colonists that lived in Indonesia. They were in concentration camps in the island of Surabaya in World War II, put there by the Japanese.
PHAWKER: Oh, wow.
CYRIL JORDAN: They tortured my dad.
PHAWKER: Holy cow!
CYRIL JORDAN: He was a writer for the Marines. He was in for about two years and the thing that was really tragic was that my father’s family had gotten there around 1850 and had discovered the Tapioca Route and cornered the world market.
PHAWKER: What’s the Tapioca Route?
CYRIL JORDAN: It’s named for tapioca pudding.
CYRIL JORDAN: It’s some kind of flavoring, yeah, or pulp-
PHAWKER: So it grows naturally in the wild and they harvested it and sold it to the West?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, yeah. They were billionaires. I mean they owned railroads and everything, but the family lost everything to the Japs in WWII.
CYRIL JORDAN: So my folks went to Holland when they got out of the camps. Holland, and then they split from Europe to visit our friends in America. And I was born there so I was an automatic citizen.
PHAWKER: Right, there you go. Just to back up one second- the Japanese rounded up all foreign nationals who seemed unfriendly and put them in camps the same way we did in the United States to the American Japanese?
CYRIL JORDAN: No, no they came in like an invasion, you know. The funny thing is is when the Japs were pulled out, my father said that he was about ready to kill himself and then he saw a P-38 fly over the camp and he knew the British had landed so he had a feeling that maybe he should hang around because maybe the war would be over. And when the Japs were kicked out, there was a revolution in Indonesia and my mom and dad hid out in the basement of a mansion for I don’t know about five weeks or so. There were a lot of revolutions going on.
PHAWKER: Holy cow!
CYRIL JORDAN: Oh, yeah. All the Chinese farm workers got their hands cut off.
PHAWKER: Holy cow.
CYRIL JORDAN: And that was the first thing that happened. Their story is way heavier than mine.
PHAWKER: I’m sensing that, yeah. Wow.
CYRIL JORDAN: There are photos of my dad’s house, which was a plantation house in the middle of a jungle. It’s unbelievable it’s like something right out of you know-
PHAWKER: Apocalypse Now?
PHAWKER: Okay, so they come to the U.S., wind up in San Francisco. How did your parents come together?
CYRIL JORDAN: Well they knew each other in the 30’s and dad was always in love with mom, she was older. And he went and got her out of the camp. He took the coat off of a dead Communist, a big overcoat that had a Communist patch on it, and he talked his way into the women’s camp and got her out of there. And she was holding this young Dutch teenage girl whose head was cracked open from the rifle butt of a Jap soldier.
PHAWKER: Jesus Christ.
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah. She was dying in my mom’s arms and my dad said “Come on we can’t take her with us we have to go”, so they cut out and like I said, they hid out for 5 or 6 weeks before they could reunite with the Red Cross.
PHAWKER: And so what happened? The Allied forces kicked the Japanese out and the Indonesian people had a civil war?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah. Dad wound up in America with about 25 cents in his pocket-
PHAWKER: So what did they do? What did he do for a living?
CYRIL JORDAN: He started working at See’s Candy. He got real sick doing that. Too much junk. He only did that for a little bit and then he ended up working at the airport. Slowly mom and dad started to get back on their feet.
PHAWKER: So then, where and how did you become interested in rock and roll? How did you get the bug?
CYRIL JORDAN: Well one day, dad, he would always work on his cars down in the garage and listen to classical music, he was a classical music nut. I mean I knew Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and all that stuff. By the time I was three I knew at least three minutes of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. And then mom was into jazz. She was into Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and all of those guys and big band stuff. So I got a heavy education before rock and roll came out. Then I got polio.
PHAWKER: Oh, geez.
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, I got bulbar polio when I was five and a half which was up in the top of my neck. Man, I was going to be dead in about six months if I didn’t get that iron lung and that didn’t happen. The doctors are still scratching their heads and wondering why I survived it. I got pulled out of a ward that had about 45 crippled kids in it at the children’s hospital and the one day the doctors pulled me out of there and I went home. And I had a nurse for about two and a half years because both my mom and dad worked. So I came back into school in the third grade but I had missed like most of first and second grade.
PHAWKER: It just miraculously went away? It just sort of cured itself?
CYRIL JORDAN: I guess it cured itself. You know I don’t know what happened, but you know my entrance back into the world, that’s when rock’n’roll happened. One night I changed the radio station when my dad was listening downstairs, he was working and I was messing around with the radio up here in the living room, I turned the dial and I switched in and all of a sudden I heard the intro to “Tallahassee Lassie” by Freddy Cannon and I freaked out. Dad came upstairs he was real angry he said: “Don’t ever do that again!” [laughs] He wasn’t too pleased that I went into rock mode. I had a Mickey Mouse guitar in ‘57 so I was slowly falling in love with the guitar, but I was really falling in love with the music of the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Peggy Sue and some of the great old rock classics, a lot of Jerry Lee, my mom was crazy about Jerry Lee, so slowly I’m falling in love with rock’n’roll. The Ventures came out with their surf instrumentals, I had completely fallen in love with electric guitar. I had all the catalogues: Fender, Gretsch, Rickenbacker. I knew all about those instruments before the Beatles came out. So I was pretty much ready when the Beatles hit. I had been playing guitar for about two and a half years, since about ‘61 and I was just about ready to give it up because there wasn’t anything interesting on the radio. And then the British invasion happened and that was it. I got sucked right back in.
PHAWKER: So fast forward a bit to 1965 and the Flaming Groovies officially begin correct?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yes. Well we officially began in ‘66. We were The Chosen Few in 1965. Until we found out that there were like 15 Chosen Fews
CYRIL JORDAN: I wasn’t too jazzed about the name though. I mean, I was the youngest guy in the band so I didn’t want to say anything, but I thought it was a little pretentious.
PHAWKER: Which one? The Chosen Few?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, The Chosen Few. [laughs]
PHAWKER: Well how did you guys come up with the Flaming Groovies?
CYRIL JORDAN: Well, the day after the last Beatles concert, in 1966 which was here in San Francisco again, we had a big bash the next day and I was completely out of my mind on LSD and marijuana running around the house going ‘Groovy!’ Anything anybody said to me, I just said ‘Groovy’ and Roy [Loney] came in and said: Flaming Groovy.
CYRIL JORDAN: So that’s how we got the name, but we wanted the name that was like the The Lovin’ Spoonful or The Rolling Stones, we wanted a three syllable or four syllable name and we also wanted a name that gave the idea that we were the greatest band that ever lived. You know, that the name was so great that nobody could ever live up to it.
PHAWKER: So you were dabbling in LSD at that early stage, yet the band was not a part of or embraced by the psychedelic ballroom scene, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, etc. Is that correct?
CYRIL JORDAN: You know the funny thing about all of those bands is that they had about eight to ten years on us. They were all older people. A lot of them came out of the folk music scene.
CYRIL JORDAN: And I don’t know if you remember, but when Bob Dylan went electric he got a lot of flack.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah.
CYRIL JORDAN: From the Folkies. And basically what the problem was back then was that if you played the electric guitar, then you were like a teeny bopper. That’s how the older people looked at it. And if you played acoustic, you were a little more intellectual, so they got real pissed at Dylan for going electric, but of course Dylan knew that electric was the way to go when he heard the Beatles. You know, he just couldn’t believe the power that those guys were getting out of those instruments. And that was probably why Bob made his decision to go electric. And I’m really glad he did because those records he cut with [Mike] Bloomfield and Robby Robertson and all those guys were just fantastic, you know.
PHAWKER: Those three albums he made between 1965 and 1966 — Highway 61, Bringing It All Back Home, and Blonde On Blonde — were the holy trinity. In my book, with a few notable exceptions, it was all downhill after that.
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Yeah. Okay well where were you going with that? You said that most of the guys came out of the folk scene, they saw you-
CYRIL JORDAN: The fact was, since we were kids, since we were younger, we were really into rock and roll and doing covers of The Chosen Fews and the next name we had the Lost and Found, our set was pretty much 90% The Rolling Stones. We were doing “Heart Of Stone,” we were doing “Round And Round” and doing “Not Fade Away” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” from Them, we were a pretty much a British invasion copy band. Most of the bands, like Count Five who did “Psychotic Reaction” — I mean we were all British copy bands. We all did Yardbirds songs, we all did Animals songs, and the folkies they were older than us and they were writing their own music and so we were left out of that. I mean we were as much a part of it as much as the other bands, as the Dead or whatever. We were a bunch of young kids I mean I was still living at home with my mom and I was still in high school.
PHAWKER: Were you there for any of the classic Summer Of Love San Francisco moments, like the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park or-
CYRIL JORDAN: Oh yeah we played all of those, you know. Basically, if you gigged in the daytime it was a free gig. If you gigged at night, you made money. That’s it. And back then the way it was with the clubs and everything, because it’s all different now, but back then, a local band could work four or five nights a week in the same area and you know actually make money. I used to have around $400 in my pocket by the time the weekend came just from giggin’. But, yeah, we were considered “not part of the scene” it was never really written or spoken about, but because we did rock’n’roll they were down on us. See, they were down on the Beatles, too, because it was a teeny bopper thing.
CYRIL JORDAN: And that whole electric guitar thing, the folkies slowly got into it because of Dylan, you know and then it evolved into an improv thing with the Dead or the Airplane would do long jams and stuff. So it really turned into something great. I’m a big fan of all of those groups, I love all of those groups. I don’t know if you know, but we took over the Fillmore Auditorium from Bill Graham in ‘69.
PHAWKER: Who’s “we”?
CYRIL JORDAN: The Flaming Groovies.
PHAWKER: What do you mean you “took it over”? You were running it?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah we ran it for two years.
PHAWKER: Wow, I didn’t know that.
CYRIL JORDAN: We found out the lease was only $500 a month, and our manager said, ‘Well why don’t we just use that as a rehearsal space?’ And I said: ‘Well why don’t we put on shows and make money and stuff and we could have that pay for the lease?’ So we did that for about two and a half years. We did a couple shows a month that would turn out 150 people or so, we wouldn’t have a ton of people. And every once in awhile the Dead would help us out and we would fill the place up. So you could actually say we weren’t part of the scene but we were.
PHAWKER: Okay, let’s jump ahead to the song “Teenage Head.” As I told you earlier I used to play in a band and we covered that song. But I haven’t listened in forever and I went back to it recently and it just floored me. The riff, the groove, the shakers, that guitar tone, the snotty vocals, and the lyrics are amazing.
CYRIL JORDAN: Well the title “Teenage Head” comes from my good old friend Kim Fowley.
PHAWKER: Oh, okay. Tell me about that.
CYRIL JORDAN: Kim and I were on acid at the Big Sur Folk Festival and we were in hysterics, we made each other laugh quite a bit all the time. Kim was one of the funniest people I had ever met. And he was running around with me backstage looking for ‘teenage head’ as if there was a booth. He was asking folks where you could get some teenage head and I was in hysterics. I laughed so hard that day that the next day my mouth was locked open.
PHAWKER: Hang on let me just finish up what you said earlier about The Beatles, were you at Candlestick Park show?
CYRIL JORDAN: What’s that?
PHAWKER: Did you see the final Beatles show at Candlestick park?
CYRIL JORDAN: Oh yeah I saw three shows here in San Francisco in ‘64, ‘65, and ‘66.
PHAWKER: And were you on acid at the final Beatles show?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yes I was.
PHAWKER: ‘Atta boy. So was a bunch of Merry Pranksters, from what I’ve read.
CYRIL JORDAN: Oh yeah.
PHAWKER: And you were tripping. How did that work out? Was the music much more intense or was everything freakish and loud and confusing with a million screaming teenagers drowning out the music?
CYRIL JORDAN: You know the fact that it was moved to Candle State Park which is the windiest spot on the Earth. The wind was blowing a storm and we were up high way up in the grand stand looking down on the field and the stage which was the size of a cheese cracker. You know the Beatles came out and they looked like bugs walking through the stage so it really wasn’t like the greatest show you know?
PHAWKER: Right right
CYRIL JORDAN: Before this, the Beatles were in the Philippines where they were almost killed. They rejected an invite from-
PHAWKER: Imelda Marcos, yeah right.
CYRIL JORDAN: And it was really a bummer because the Marcos people had invited all these friends of theirs and their children were there waiting there for The Beatles and those idiots didn’t go.
PHAWKER: Right, right.
CYRIL JORDAN: And apparently they ran for their lives to the airport.
PHAWKER: Yeah I remember reading that, it was taken as a slap in the face of the First Lady. Things got pretty scary, they weren’t quite sure they were going to be allowed to leave the country or if there was going to be an international incident…but back to the Kim Fowley story,
CYRIL JORDAN: Well I came back to San Francisco talking about “Teenage Head” to Roy and we wrote the song almost immediately and we wanted, well I told Roy, I said: “Why don’t we do a take off of Led Zeppelin? You know we’ll just do a Mothers of Invention take off on Led Zeppelin, you know? Because we were hanging out with Jimmy Page, we had opened for the Yardbirds on their last tour and I got to be pretty good friends with Jimmy Page and I picked up Bonham and Jones at the airport in LA and I waited at the airport for Jimmy when they flew in. We rolled up about ten joints and then I took them to Knott’s Bery Farm. So the boots that I’m wearing on the “Teenage Head” cover were made by a company called Granny Takes a Trip which Jimmy Page turned me on to.
PHAWKER: A London psychedelic boutique, right?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fantastic clothes, just fantastic stuff. So that became “Teenage Head”, and you know basically we were just doing a parody, and everybody took it seriously and it became like an anthem.
PHAWKER: Well it is a freakin’ anthem! I think these are some of the greatest rock’n’roll lyrics ever-
PHAWKER: “Half a boy and half a man/Half at sea and half on land”.
CYRIL JORDAN: Roy was at a peak when he wrote those lyrics. I basically would do the music and would come up with a title sometimes. I would always do the arrangements and by the time we did Teenage Head the album, I was pretty much the only instrumentalist because our other guitar player had been busted by the police for dealing and Roy had stopped playing guitar at that time because before that we were like a three guitar band, so I ended up playing most of the guitars and doing all of the arrangements on Teenage Head, which pretty much set me up for the next version of the Groovies where Chris Wilson came in.
PHAWKER: Hold on one sec, I want circle back to Kim Fowley — so on acid, Kim Fowley makes this joke about getting “teenage head,” about receiving oral sex from a teenager — why am I not surprised? — but the way that it’s used in the song, it’s like one of those old cheesy sci-fi movies, or Frankenstein, where a grown-ass man has a teenager’s head sewn onto his body — which pretty much sums up rock n’ roll. It’s like that?
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, it’s like that.
PHAWKER: And thinks the way a teenager thinks: he wants to fight, he wants to fuck-
CYRIL JORDAN: Well back then it had a double meaning because back then if you had a “head” that means that you had dropped, you know. It meant you had dropped acid, and if you were a teenager who dropped it means you were a “teenage head.” So there was a double meaning there.
PHAWKER: “When you see me/better turn your tail and run/ ‘cause I’m angry and I’ll mess you up for fun/ I’m the child of atom bombs, rotten air and Vietnam/I’m you and you’re me” That’s brilliant. That’s the 60’s summed up in two couplets.
CYRIL JORDAN: Oh totally, and Roy had a fantastic way of writing you know these impressions down. It was automatic you know, he would just come up with these lines and I would just be like: “Oh yeah, that’s great let’s use that.”
PHAWKER: But he left the band shortly after you guys wrote that song right?
CYRIL JORDAN: Well we had lost our manager, our manager absconded with all of our money and he was gone one day at and at the Fillmore we had almost lost all of our gear because I went down there with my key to the Fillmore to rehearse and The Black Panthers had taken it over.
PHAWKER: [laughs] This just keeps getting better.
CYRIL JORDAN: Yeah, so they were down there and it was kind of scary. And I kept trying to tell these guys: “Well that’s our gear in here, we have to get our gear out of there.”
End of Part One