All them dusty record store covers—gems, between price stickers and the onset of a peculiar mold sensitive to albums everywhere. I found the Groovies’ latter stuff on Sire Records, first with guitarist Cyrill Jordan still on board; Jumpin’ in the Night, Now and Shake Some Action LP, which had Dave Edmonds producing the title track. All good records that staked their claim in porto-punk, and each had at least a couple of covers–usually Stones, Beatles or Byrds, done with respect and instructions from the ’60s. But that was it, case closed. I owned two and left it like that. Nothing would prepare me for the earlier Groovies, singer Roy Loney and Jordan’s jacked-up rock ’n’ roll band. Each song rough, jagged, blessed, with hooks and lyrics that were a big-picture thing. If you were listening, they were talking to you.
As poets will tell it, the Stones’ Sticky Fingers came out on that same Tuesday as the Groovies’ Teenage Head, but it don’t matter. Could have been a month or more either way. The Glimmer Twins left little to chance showing up in Muscle Shoals, “Brown Sugar” to “Moonlight Mile,” all inside Warhol’s zipper. Christ, just bad luck, and this version of the Groovies delivered the goods.
Producer Richard Robinson took the first takes and the band, with producer-legend Jim Dickinson on keys, had attitude, and when the tape was running and the red light was on, it was devil may care.
The song “Whiskey Woman” comes on and 60 seconds into it you run it back and don’t move until it’s over. Three or four chords delivered on a bangy acoustic six-string, mid-tempo, and when the vocal hits with a hint of Sun Records slap back, that first verse is so full of swagger. There was much swagger in the first verse I couldn’t make out what Loney was singing and I tried nine times before I gave up, so here I’ll begin with the second verse: “As I sit and write this song/You’re the one thing on my mind”; a sort of white-boy blues call-and-response. It won’t stop … and every listener has felt this way. Now the tempo is halftime, it stops, stutters and electricity kicks in and hits the mean chords. All the while the vocal screams, “Where are you? Say, where are you?” A gallop now: “Yeah, where are you? “... Come on, come on, it’s you.”
South Carolina-born Don Covay grew up on gospel (dad was a Baptist minister), but it was Little Richard who convinced him he’d find the true light by going secular. (Richard had also helped Covey supercharge his live show—it became rife with sexual tension for girls—and even christened him “Pretty Boy.”)
By 1965, the year this ditty and its same-titled album dropped, The Stones had already tackled Covay’s sweet “Mercy Mercy” on Out of Our Heads, and Chubby Checker took his “Pony Time” to numero uno. But it was the stunning confluence of Covay, Stax studios, Booker T. & the MG’s and this tune (co-written by Steve Cropper) that set the album's tone and feel. (The album contains other Covay-Cropper killers including dirty grinder “Sookie Sookie” [huge for Steppenwolf in ’68] and northern soul raver “Iron Out the Rough Spots,” which spotlights a true soul takedown by the Memphis Horns.)
With its injured-pride lyric of gender misunderstanding and a classic New Orleans-via-Allen-Toussaint bounce (that bass!), the brash “See Saw” lands hard. Its guitars stutter, its horns blip, and that frog-swallowed answer-back vocal is an hilarious hook that'd stand on its own. Covay’s lung-bursting shouts and swoons will always be a sublime showcase for a voice Jagger had always wished he’d had.
Aretha Franklin made a funked-up hit of “See Saw” in ’68.
There were some exceptions, of course, as there are now, in an era of shifting cultural norms and the dominance and creative pinnacle of R&B and hip hop. During the ’90s, there were a few notable bands that doubled down on their own rock ’n’ roll hootchie coo, and Tucson’s Asian Fred is today’s equivalent. Reaching far back into history’s stylebook and sounding like The Band or George Harrison in the immediate aftermath of The Beatles, Asian Fred–somewhat defiantly–relies on the twin pillars of impeccable craftsmanship and studious inspiration to carry on a tradition while contributing to its canon.
With a dream of a rhythm section–nodding to Stax and even disco–Asian Fred has a deliberate, considered, monolithic style that encompasses the perfectionist technique of, say, Steely Dan, along with the eazy riding of a hundred forgotten ’70s FM heroes. And that leaves Asian Fred as one of today’s most exciting and accomplished straight rock ’n’ roll bands, and one that would stand tall in any era.