Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Shake Some Action (1976)

(Save time! Reader's Digest condensed versions here and here.)

I see that Shake Some Action is presently in some sort of commercial limbo, available digitally but otherwise only in expensive import CD or retro vinyl editions. For what it's worth I loved it most as a vinyl album because both sides, in different ways, offer such wonderful 20-minute sets start to finish. But everything for me is digital nowadays so same difference. I should mention that the band has a lengthy and complicated history, with partisans for other stages of it, which you can look up because I won't be going into it much. Suffice to say I believe I'm in the minority on this, which is approximately their fourth of some eight albums and miscellaneous other releases to date, with multiple significant lineup changes along the way. It's the only album by the Flamin' Groovies I care for much, though I care for it very much. But fair warning, caveats, all that: It's less connected to their earlier harder-edged Bay Area swamp-rock incarnation and more connected to a disconnected fantasy about British Invasion style and what rock 'n' roll feels like. As such, all they did was create one of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums I know.

Now I maybe need to sound the personal note again here about events going on when I came to hear this album and first know it, with a move to Minneapolis after living in the suburbs for many years, and getting my own place in town, and the neighborhood record store (Positively 4th Street, on 4th SE), and the fabulous cutout bin they had. That's where I stocked up on albums by Jonathan Richman, Brian Eno, John Cale, Roxy Music, and others that came to be important, and where I found Shake Some Action, and took a chance, remembering Rolling Stone magazine rave-ups of the albums by the '70-'71 outfit(s). Shake Some Action is also produced by Dave Edmunds and I was a big fan of the Rockpile extended consortium (some of which also turned up in that cutout bin, now that I think of it).

It didn't take long to figure out what I had on my hands with Shake Some Action. On a very basic level it addresses one of the great themes of some of the greatest rock 'n' roll albums, which is rock 'n' roll itself. This is evident from the titles ("Shake Some Action," "St. Louis Blues," "Let the Boy Rock 'n' Roll," and that's just the first side) and borne out in the grooves, which are straight out of St. Louis, Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans, all fundamentals all the time, albeit—and this is important—strained through Bay Area white fellas momentarily affecting to be British, and rather Mersey at that.

I'm not sure anyone could explain what they had in mind. I understand why it shouldn't work. What I don't understand is why it does—and what really sneaked up and surprised me was how long it sustained playing one or other or both sides every day consecutively, and beyond that often. Talking months and years, respectively. It just has so much to give somehow. I wish there was a lifetime counter on every song and album I have listened to by choice, because I think ultimately the tale of what's a favorite is determined by mass and volume times listened to, plain and simple. I think by that measure alone this wonderful, unassuming rock 'n' roll album got to be so high on my list.

The songs are short and to the point, a mix of covers and originals, approximately half and half (a strategy also used by Yo La Tengo for Fakebook, which included a cover of this album's "You Tore Me Down"), with the two album sides also splitting into neat self-contained 7 x 7 halves too, as I mentioned. The songs traffic equally in flavors of blues, rockabilly, country harmonies, pop confections, and straight-up rock 'n' roll—or as straight-up as anything gets on this album, which interestingly also happens to exist in a gauzy (even muffled) romantic haze somehow cut through fine over and over again. It's that tension that fascinates me so much, has kept me coming back. I think the production works—if there are errors in the recording they are errors of good fortune. And the band is restrained, not to say timid, feeling its way seeming gentle through the harmonies and guitar chords and breaks. Between the two, the blurred production and the tentative playing, the underachiever stance that is accomplished works in favor of the overall effect, especially when they start effortlessly reaching for and touching high points.

Example: "Let the Boy Rock 'n' Roll," which lasts 2:18, a Lovin' Spoonful cover. At its ever-lovin' heart it's corny: a little martial snare drum figure and a spoken voice open it, "I heard Mama and Papa talkin' last night, I heard Mama say to Papa, 'Let that boy rock 'n' roll.'" At which point, well, you can imagine—a finely honed blast of rave-up, tempered by its own sincerity. Sometimes, as here, the Flamin' Groovies feel so sincere it's almost a relief when they duck away into the pure playing, eluding the open intensity, the sneaking sense the only pleasure they know in life is rock 'n' roll, which is necessary like food and oxygen and sex, nonetheless fully under control in the dance-all-night playing.

But there it is exactly, that tension that powers every song on this. "Let the Boy Rock 'n' Roll" is rock 'n' roll complete with orgasmic screams, guitar breaks, call and response, but it's also decked out figuratively in the tidy tailored suits they wore for the cover photo shoot—it's loose, and tight. But loose and tight—that's what it is! The essence of rock 'n' roll. One thing I particularly appreciate about Shake Some Action and the Flamin' Groovies is the opportunity they afford for just such a frank and open discussion of rock 'n' roll—what it means, what it feels like, how important it is.

The title song is an obvious shot of intentionality across the bow—at 4:34, the longest thing here by more than a minute, and thus practically epic on those terms. But already it is working in these two directions at once. The plodding tempo, the gentle way the guitar chords texture it, the luxurious way it lets itself become engulfed by its own bottom, wallowing in it. On one level it's inert, on another it's warm and loving, open and embracing, yet it's also chaste and almost brittle. The reverbs and tremolos it's so richly draped with you come to realize are calibrated down to instinctive fractions of a second. It's music, and performance, and production that have obviously been labored and pored over. And what is it all about? "Shake some action's what I need / To let me bust out at full speed." Oh, I see. Spontaneity. Now don't misunderstand me. I don't say it should have been a hit—I understand all too well the many reasons it never could have been, even in 1976 when things were more open—but I like to imagine the world where it was.

Or better, the world where this album spawned a handful or more of hits. After the intricate "Shake Some Action" the rest by comparison are more the product of workaday sessions, but what comes of them surprises over and over. The very next two songs—"Sometimes," an obscure Gene & Debbe song from the early '60s, and then "Yes It's True," one of the seven songs by Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson, which are perfectly seamless with all the others—set the tentative mood of emotional peril, with references to crying, being alone, worrying, and worse. It's beautiful music, picking its way carefully to its great moments. Alternating that then they rev up a giddy uptempo cover of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Then a return to anxiety in their own "You Tore Me Down" (perhaps the most lush and haunting song here) and "Please Please Girl," which picks up the pace, and finally the full-scale redemption of "Let the Boy Rock 'n' Roll."

Flip it or play again. That's the basic narrative arc, and they go through it again, touching different bases, on the second seven songs. Things start hard there, with Chuck Berry's refraction on the eternals of love, "Don't You Lie to Me," which also happens to be about as raunchy a blues as we get on this album. "She Said Yeah" is a cover of a Rolling Stones cover of a Larry Williams song co-written by Sonny Bono. It's the shortest thing song at 1:38, though the Beatles cover, "Misery," is only one second longer. In between another precious swollen moment is found, "I'll Cry Alone," another Jordan/Wilson original. It is yet another track on this album where the murk of the production works in its favor, an enticing fragment, which plays perfectly. And there's still more heartbreak beyond that, increasingly pensive and poignant moods in "I Saw Her" and "Teenage Confidential."

Shake Some Action goes out on one of the most memorable and ringing songs in the whole affair. In that imaginary world where this album produces hit after hit after hit I'd like to nominate "I Can't Hide" for the follow-up to "Shake Some Action," following on the earth-shattering stay at #1 for unprecedented weeks of that song (it's my fantasy now, indulge me). "I Can't Hide" typically sounds foreboding but the referenced hiding that can't be done is actually about "the way I feel inside." Someone is happy and excited because someone is in L-U-V love, you best believe, and they just can't hide from it no matter how they try. That's a good feeling. And so here we find the final union and synthesis of all the preceding anxieties and outbursts of defiant rock 'n' roll, which is as it should be, something something something (I think you know what I mean) love and rock 'n' roll and the Flamin' Groovies. "Yesterday my life was filled with pain / But now it's changed, you'll never be the same." With love, momentarily, are we empowered to everything, worrisome connotations or no: "Hold on close now girl and keep on lovin' me."

Well, all right. It's only rock 'n' roll. Are there bumps ahead in this vision of love? Yes, obviously, there are bumps ahead. But the point is, in the moment, they don't know it—or, more accurately, he doesn't know it, within his fantasy of them. But he doesn't have to know it. "I Can't Hide" is a spectacular blast to the spirit on purely sonic terms. The vision of love's bliss is compelling enough with that. It is perfect, every bass stroke, every guitar chord, every ringing harmony. I play the whole thing all at once. It's a big gulp. Save some for tomorrow. No, I'll get another one tomorrow. LOUD. Yes. Let that boy rock 'n' roll. And so forth.

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