You could hardly invent a more perfect template for a pre-punk cult rock band than the Flamin’ Groovies. Though their 1965 formation and 1968 recorded debut place them squarely in the hippie era, they purveyed a prescient and influential back-to-basics ethos, with a roots-and-blues approach that was of its time at first, but increasingly out of touch with the ongoing shift to psychedelia happening in the San Francisco scene from which the band sprung. Their second incarnation, post-1971, saw the band landing squarely in the power-pop realm, and by 1976, their album Shake Some Action was produced by key pub rock/new wave crossover figure Dave Edmunds, and they were being acknowledged not just as an influence, but a exponent of the new music, and were featured on compilations along with the Ramones, the Dead Boys, and the Damned.
Naturally, their legacy as innovators being secured, commercial failure ensued, but commercial failure often only intensifies a cult following, and indeed, though Groovies fans are few compared to the followings of other ’60s and ’70s trailblazers, they’re a dedicated lot, and the title cut from Shake Some Action remains a minor classic. As the band’s classic phase saw two significant incarnations, they have a divided fan base, with a faction favoring the earlier, rootsier band featuring singer/guitarist Roy Loney along with main man Cyril Jordan, and others devoted to the power pop incarnation that evolved after Jordan brought in front man Chris Wilson.
But one of the band’s most enduring tunes bridges their two incarnations. Co-written by Loney before his 1971 exit, but a 1972 single with Wilson and a live staple, “Slow Death” is a pretty blunt anti-drug anthem:
He said “There’s nothing I can prescribe
To keep your raunchy bag of bones alive”
I got some money left for one more shot
He said “God bless you” I said “Thanks a lot”
It’s raw stuff, and a direct mention of morphine in the lyrics kept it off the radio in England. Wilson’s vocals are SCORCHING in a early demo of the song that surfaced on a ’71-’73 rarities compilation called, um, Slow Death, but soon, an early live version with Loney on vocals is being released, and we have it for you today. In 1971, just before Loney’s departure, the band was invited to play one of the closing shows for the Fillmore West. This was no small event for the band, as they were never favored in the eyes of Fillmore impresario Bill Graham, according to Cyril Jordan:
The closing of the Fillmore West (actually, the Carousel Ballroom) put a big dent in the ‘City By the Bay’. This performance was taken from the closing concerts for the venue. The list of bands that Bill Graham didn’t want was also big,...and the Flamin’ Groovies were on it, for years. Our first manager was Bill’s right-hand man and when he quit working for Bill to manage the Flamin’ Groovies and this did not sit well with Bill, so the Groovies went up and down in Bill’s eyes. So it came as a big surprise when we discovered he wanted us for this big and important event, to participate in a series of shows leading up to the closing of this legendary venue.
The show was also Loney’s last show, so the inclusion of “Slow Death” on the track list of Flamin’ Groovies - Live In San Francisco 1971 offers an opportunity to hear it sung by its original writer. (Though not the first opportunity; a recording of the set was made for radio broadcast, and apart from bootlegs, it’s surfaced on the 1983 Bucketful of Brains and on Norton Records’ far less shitty-sounding Flamin’ Groovies In Person!) Not that there’s anything wrong with any of the Wilson renditions—the United Artists 7” version from 1972 is kind of a slow-burner compared to available live and demo recordings, but there’s a particularly ferocious TV performance that we’ll share below. First, here’s the Loney version from June 30, 1971.
And here’s the live version with Wilson, from French television in 1972. It’s a pretty goddamn exciting performance.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Flamin’ Groovies TV promos