The Flamin’ Groovies appeared on the scene almost half a century ago, their idiosyncratic blend of fuzzed-out proto-punk and tongue-in-cheek retro-rock pastiche sounding like little else in contemporary music. Their string of classic albums in the late 1960s and early ’70s inspired whole waves of stripped-down rock n’ roll to come: from power pop and punk to the revivalist garage rock of 21st-century groups like the White Stripes. With Groovies frontman Cyril Jordan joined by his mid-’70s co-pilot Chris Wilson and original bassist George Alexander, the band’s new album, Fantastic Plastic, is the first by any incarnation of the group since 1993.
Fantastic Plastic is, thus, surprisingly well-played and energetic. Opener and lead single “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” sounds like vintage Groovies—which is to say, it sounds more than a little like the Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main St., albeit with a main riff that’s oddly reminiscent of John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good.” “I Want You Bad,” a cover of the 1978 song by fellow power-pop pioneers NRBQ, revamps the original version’s adolescent longing with a newfound vulnerability thanks to Wilson’s older, craggier vocals. Even a relative throwaway like “Crazy Macy” buzzes with energy, chugging along on one of those Chuck Berry/Keith Richards/Johnny Ramone riffs that somehow never get old, no matter how often they’re reheated.
The question, from a cold-blooded critical perspective, is whether we still need this band to reheat those riffs. The Groovies were in many ways the first of the rock revivalists—those carriers of the torch who emerge every decade or so to “save” rock n’ roll by ushering it back to its three-chord platonic ideal. But in 2017, it’s debatable whether there’s anything of that ideal left to save. Most post-millennial listeners barely care about Mudhoney and Iggy Pop, let alone the Groovies’s holy trinity of Boomer-era influences: the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Stones. Even if they do care, they have access to all of these artists’ full catalogues at their fingertips, a convenience that makes the whole notion of “revival” feel quaint and anachronistic.
In this strange cyberpunk world, the whole of history coexists in a single moment; there’s no longer an intrinsic value in keeping the flame of rock n’ roll alive, because the vastness and compartmentalization of culture ensures that it will always have its niche. A comeback album from a band like the Groovies is thus, in this day and age, an oddly vestigial thing: It’s hard to make a definitive case for listening to Plastic Fantastic when more canonical albums like Flamingo and Teenage Head are just a few Spotify clicks away.
But these are broad, philosophical concerns—not exactly what the Groovies were ever about. Plastic Fantastic isn’t essential or especially relevant—though the aforementioned “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” does capture a certain familiar sense of aging-liberal bewilderment. It is, though, a utilitarian product, offering up 12 newly recorded songs that will allow the band to get back on the road. Like Wilson sings on “Let Me Rock,” a lost anthem originally recorded in 1971, brushed off and rehabilitated here: “You took my soul, but you won’t take my rock n’ roll.” After 50 years, who among us would try?